Let’s learn how to make furniture with Erik from the urban homesteading website & podcast Root Simple. Erik joins me to talk about beginning furniture making, how he started, organized his workshop, learned woodworking, uses SketchUp and now makes Stickley American Craftsman style furniture. wow.
My friend West Coast Erik (aka Erik Knutzen) has been on the show a few times, and its always fun.
The Brooklyn Makerspace I am taking classes at FutureWorks MakerSpace
Eric: Hey, welcome. This is GardenFork Radio. I’m already messing up the introduction here. So Hey, welcome to GardenFork Radio. Thanks for downloading the show. It’s me, Eric, with my eclectic friends. We talk about how to do stuff, DIY, cooking, gardening. I also have a YouTube channel of the same kind of stuff. If this is your first time here today, my friend Erik from Root Simple is here. This is West Coast Erik, welcome sir. We have an amazing Skype connection here. I’m in New York and you’re in LA and it sounds like you’re next door. Yeah, it’s pretty cool technology, isn’t it? If you’re thinking about starting a podcast, just email me firstname.lastname@example.org and I will show you how it’s pretty simple. And if I can have a podcast, everyone can write. So you also have a podcast called the Root Simple podcast and a website called Root Simple.
Erik: Indeed. We’ve been a little sporadic with the podcasts lately, which is why we’re having you on our podcast.
Eric: You’re just using me. So today I wanted to talk to Erik about -I actually subscribe to his email – You can sign up for his email alerts on his website to when he posts new things on his website. And while I’ll let you tell the story, basically it’s gone from some simple handyman work to building an, is it a Stickley mission chair? A Stickley American craftsmen chair? This amazing looking chair you built.
Erik: Yeah, thanks. It was one of my projects and maybe a few weeks ago that I just finished, which was a yes, a Stickley bow arm Morris chair.
Eric: Wow. It’s a beautiful, I mean, I’ve seen them. I have some Stickley knockoffs, which I sent you a picture of and they’re great. I actually, one of them is my meditation chair. The rocker is my meditation chair. But I, you know, so start from the beginning. You, you were renovating your house and you had to make some trim or something. Was that it?
Erik: Well, I’ve been renovating this house since 1998 actually. So it’s been a long haul and I’ve always been kind of a mediocre handyman, let’s say. And you know, the, this work, this, this house rather, really required a lot of work. It’s almost a hundred years old now and it when we got it was in really horrible condition. So kind of the first wave of that was we had to actually hire people to work on the foundation and do some other stuff and you know, I fix things here and there. I even put in a a wood floor actually in the living room the maybe 15 years ago now, but I decided, I guess it was three, maybe four ago now, that I really wanted to specialize in, in woodwork and, and kind of up my skill level so that I could actually make furniture as well as work on some of the trim carpentry and some of the more challenging jobs around the house.
Erik: And I got to say, and I like you, I’m got a lot of eclectic interests, but I just decided, okay, I’m going to focus on this for a while on this one skill in seat at, well, it’s, it’s hard. I mean, you know, I, my, my gym is right next to the central library, so I often will like pop over there and look at all the, do it yourself books and I had to really just like, okay, you’re not allowed to look at this other stuff. You’re just gonna look at the woodworking and carpentry section of the library and focused on that for awhile and see what happens as well as take some classes. So I did that too. Where were, where are the classes offered? Well, luckily for me, there’s a place called Community Woodshop that’s just a short hop away from our house.
Erik: And it’s one of these places where they have classes, but also you can rent time in the shop. I didn’t end up doing that. I ended up putting together my own shop, but the classes were really, really great. They had a basic safety class that I took that was actually a lot more informative than I, I thought it would be, about how not to lose a finger. But also actually learned how to use all the tools. They went over that too. So it was very informative. And then I took another class where we made a simple mallet and that, you know, that was a, there were a number of skills that you learned doing that. And then I took a make a small box class and kind of took it from there.
Erik: And then I started working in my own little shop and building my own little shop at home.
Eric: Does the making of the box was, was that like a dovetail joint box or a simple like Morrison were called mortus and tennon joints are just corner joints or, yeah, it was a, what’d you call them?
Erik: Miter joint, but reinforced with what’s called a spline, which would be easier to show than to explain. But basically it’s a mitered joint with this reinforcement. It actually was a box within a box. So the class was, you know, it was, you know, not really about the object itself but about learning skills. In this case it was, it was how to use a table saw and how to use a few hand tools along with that to get this thing to fix because it would fit rather cause it was pretty intricate. Wow. And that’s the thing about making furniture is that the, the tolerances are a lot smaller than like framing a house or something like that. Not to denigrate, that’s a skill in itself. But this is a little different.
Eric: This might be why they call a chop saw, a chop saw.
Erik: Right. So I learned like, okay, chop saw is not for thinking boxes with you use a table saw for that. I actually learned a way to, to make this kind of like slid like device for the table saw to cut on 90 degree, perfect 90 degree angles. I was one of the things I learned in that, that box class,
Eric: I’ve seen people make those sleds in some of the woodworking videos I’ve watched make the gentleman was channel called Make Something Youtube channel has built that. And I was often curious why it just looked like an easier way to push the wood through the table saw, but it actually does something.
Erik: Yeah, it, I mean there’s different things that makes woodworking confusing is that there’s 10 different ways to do everything. A chop saw just isn’t accurate enough unless you, there are like very super expensive chop saws from Fest tool, which is a, you know, German toolmaker that makes one that will actually make an accurate 90 degree cut. And then table says, come with this little attachment thing that you can use to make the same kind of 90 degree cuts, but they’re actually not very accurate. So you have to make this sled thing because you know, if you’re putting together a box, it’s got to fit. It’s gotta be perfect or won’t fit together. And so this sled thing ensures that you get that perfect cut.
Eric: So then you built a shop in your garage but, and you don’t have a very big garage. It’s not like this giant layout.
Erik: Yeah, no. And that, that was super challenging too because I had to figure out, okay, what, what am I gonna build? What tools do I need to do this? And then how do I squeeze it into this weird, we have this 1920 houses that has a 1922 car model. Model T cars I learned are very small. They’re the size of a sub compact car. So that’s kind of what I have is two a two car garage, but a very small two car garage and the houses on the Hill and the garage is right on the sidewalk, which is a fun actually kind of a fun part of it cause I get to meet the neighbors and chat and, and meet all the dogs being walked and all that. That’s kind of a fun part of my little shop.
Eric: I would be bumping by a lot. Hey.
Erik: Exactly. Well, that’s, that Kelly accuses me of not really doing woodworking there, but just, you know, chatting with people. But so I had to set the shop up and it’s very small. So I have to make careful decisions about what goes in there and out, you know, to be honest, I wish that I had done this when we bought the house because it’s been handy to like know where every tool is so that when I need to fix something I can just grab it. And then also to have like a proper wood a work bench for woodworking, which is just, you know, a substantial wooden table with hold downs and vices, but specifically for woodworking. And that’s been super handy, not just for making furniture, but for working on doors and windows and all the other things you have to do when you own an old house.
Eric: Well, didn’t you use SketchUp to try and lay out this in the garage?
Erik: I did use SketchUp and a SketchUp course is a really handy tool that is free or there’s a free version, I should say. And it’s a three D modeling program. So I’ll tend to use that when I’m laying something out in the house or I want to visualize something or even when I’m just making a box and don’t want to, you know, kind of make mistakes with the, with the construction I’ve had as a, as a teacher I had here recently said, always have a plan, I think was that like, yeah, exactly. But it’s good advice when I’ve tried to wing these things is that’s when bad things happen. But yeah, I use SketchUp to, to lay out this a very small space and, you know to be honest, it, the first pass not quite right. So I had to redo things a little bit, rejigger things, got a few more tools, so had to do it again.
Erik: And I’m actually, it’s close. It’s not quite exactly the way I want it yet. So I’m gonna work a little bit more on some layout and maybe remake things. I’ve, I’ve found actually, another thing is that if the workshop is attractive and inspiring, I, I want to be down there working. So I’m going to tweak it a little more to make it a little, I don’t know, a little more. I mean it’s already, it’s nice, but I want to make it a little nicer. And then like people started hanging out there, which is neighbors will come in. I’ve actually, people have come over for like a beer and stuff. So I thought of like, you know, why don’t I make it so it’s even a little bit more hangout, a ball as well as being a functional space.
Eric: I’m curious about the SketchUp. I looked at it and of course got overwhelmed immediately, but was it hard? How did you learn? Did you, were they are the video, do they have tutorials or you went to YouTube or,
Erik: Well as usual, I jumped right into it and got frustrated and, and then realize, Oh, you should watch the tutorial videos and there’s a series of tutorial videos and if you want to learn it, you really should just sit down and it takes a few evenings, but it’s not super hard to use and sit down and watch those videos, play around with it. And it’s become a very handy tool. Now I will say I’m big on drawing on paper cause I’m old. So I often, if I’m sketching out an idea, I’ll draw it on paper first and then I’ll go to SketchUp. And you know, SketchUp, what, what SketchUp does, which is really nice, is give you precise measurements for things so that then you can take it down to the workshop and make your cuts and know that you’re not gonna come out with one side being too long and not fitting.
Eric: Could I use SketchUp to design my newer, my, this theoretical plywood boat I’ve been talking about for three years and then output like instructions to cut it, the plywood out on a CNC machine.
Erik: That’s something I don’t know. Super well. There is a friend of mine who’s, who does architectural rendering and he knows all about that and he’s done CNC stuff, but I have not done CNC stuff. So I think there’s some extra steps to do. And I’m, I don’t know whether the free version or not will do that or not. It might. I’d have to, I’d have to look that up. So I don’t really know.
Eric: There’s a Makerspace here that I just discovered that is about 13 blocks from my house. Hello. And I’m going to take a welding class there, but they also have a, a CNC machine on a four by eight table and you have to be super qualified to use it, but you can also hire one of the people that works there to run a file for you. You know, you show up at the plywood, hand them them, hand them the file on a thumb drive and they’ll burn. They set it all up and go, you know, run the machine. So I’m very intrigued. My idea is to design a, a simple plywood boat and then have the cut file. People could download it and take it to their local Makerspace.
Erik: That’s cool. I now know there’ll be a video. I’m sure.
Eric: There’ll be several. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So that was my, so I am fascinated by SketchUp. I just have to sit down. I have to, I guess I have to have a real motivational reason for learning it. And right now I don’t, but who knows, that’ll check a change tomorrow.
Erik: Well, I mean one thing is that I need to do too as I have done full renderings of various rooms in the house and I’ve thought about doing the entire house so that when it comes time, I’m even after just moving furniture around or something, it’s kinda handy cause you can see what it’s going to look like before you lug the stuff around. So I it, it, it’s probably a good idea if you get into it to just do a, a SketchUp drawing of the whole house that you have or your apartment or whatever. So,
Eric: So we, we’ve, we’ve built our nice shop. It is beer friendly, the shop now
Erik: Hopefully what happens next? Well, what happened next was I am obsessed with an arts and crafts furniture, which is, which is, here’s the thing about it, which is funny is it’s out of fashion right now and is really expensive if you want to buy actual antiques. Yes. So I thought, well, why, you know, why spend the money on something no one wants, why not try to make it yourself and all these pieces of furniture in the public domain. Now there’s books, there’s plans online, you can download them. So it’s, that’s what I started doing. So I built my little mallet at th the class, then I built a box, like I said. And then the next thing I did was I made a little tiny Stickley taboret, it’s called a little side table on your site. I thought that would be a good first project cause it had a few joints, a mortise and tenon joints in it and around tabletop.
Erik: And you know, I had to learn how to finish it, which was actually one of the more challenging parts of the project. But I thought it wouldn’t be a good first project and it turned out okay. Not perfect, but okay. Did you use the quarter sawn Oak? Yeah, so that’s another thing that with this particular style of furniture, it’s all quarter sawn white Oak, which I guess I could explain. It’s a way of cutting the wood that leaves a very straight grain and also reveals this kind of, it’s called, they’re called megillah. Larry rays is this very pretty pattern on the wood when you cut it that way. And this particular style of furniture is all basically all white Oak, which actually makes it easy when I go to the lumber yard because I’m not, you know, confused by all the choices. I can just go straight to the white Oak pile and start looking through that and work just with, and I’ve kinda gotten to know how that particular wood behaves, which is actually generally it’s pretty easy to work with because it doesn’t expand and contract a lot.
Erik: And it’s pretty predictable, not always, but it’s fairly easy to use and it looks really, really pretty, I think. And th this particular furniture is really dependent on that Ray pattern, right? It’s all about the Ray pattern. If you try making it with some other wood, it, it ends up looking kind of crude, honestly. What kind of problems, challenges did you run into at the finishing of that? Oh my God. All kinds. So I was doing some Stickley pieces and [inaudible] was a famous furniture designer from around 1900 in your neck of the woods. And he had actually a very, very complicated finishing method that I’m not sure everyone, they were towed at trade secrets too, so I’m not sure people know exactly how he did some of his pieces. One method was by fuming them with ammonia. So you take ammonia and you, you put the furniture in a box or a, a plastic tarp with a bowl of ammonia and that darkens the wood.
Erik: So I tried that actually the little table I fumed and it came out okay. But it’s, it’s a difficult process. It’s not, it’s predictable and you know, it’s a little nerve wracking cause you put all this work into the piece and then fume it and you were, you know, you worry like in my fuming get enough and not fuming it quiet and not, and then it still needs to be tinted too. So he would tint the pieces, he would fume them and then finish them with shellac and wax. And I ended up doing it in a, miraculously it turned out okay. Wow. But I don’t like lurking. It’s kind of, ammonia is dangerous. I was working with janitorial ammonia, so it’s kind of weak. Yup. I didn’t really want to use the full strength stuff cause that stuff is super dangerous. And I ended up finding a method thanks to find woodworking magazine, which is a really tremendous resource on how to do this with basically with dyes and commercial finishes.
Erik: So a multistep process that I’ve been using instead of using ammonia. Although lately I started doing some English style arts and crafts pieces, which just use oil. So just the natural wood, which I kinda like because it’s a lot easier and I like the sort of lighter color to it. So I might do some more of those in the future. And fewer of the American style darker pieces. So is that oil, is that like what they called Danish oil at the hardware store? Yeah, Tung oil, I think I use, I remember that. Yeah. Tongue oil is what I use for, I just did a chair, an English style chair by the architects. CFA. Boise is kind of a weird, quirky chair with a woven seat. And of all the pieces I’ve done, that’s the one I’ve been the happiest with. Making a chair is super challenging.
Erik: But one of the things that I enjoy about is, is that in my small shop, you know, a chair is a smaller piece, so it fits on my tiny work bench and it’s just a little easier. I’ve been to maneuver. Yeah, I did a dresser and a China cabinet and a bookshelf and all those pieces are worse, super challenging just because of their size. They don’t fit on my work bands and you know, trying to spin them around and they’re super heavy too because it’s all solid Oak. So yeah, I’ve been enjoying the smaller pieces.
Eric: So, and you, I mean, you have not been doing this for years and years and years. You just, you, you took a couple of classes and you kind of took on a ran with it, but you’re not, you have, I mean you, you’re very talented, all sorts of things. But this sounds, you’re making it sound very doable.
Erik: It is very doable. So I would recommend, yeah, take a few classes. I, you know, if a talented woodworker would look at my pieces and see all the flaws in them honestly, and I see the flaws in them. Most people don’t see them. But yeah, take a few classes and then I, I’ll mention fine woodworking again because they have a website that’s behind a pay wall. But it’s more than worth it if you want to do this kind of thing because they have hundreds and hundreds of articles going back to the early 1980s that, that you can access once you, you know, pay for the monthly subscription. It’s not that much. I can’t remember what it is, but they also have hundreds of videos too, and they have editors, so it’s they’re pretty careful about the information that they put out if they make mistake to correct it, that kind of thing. And so it’s, it’s really high quality advice and as it’s been in addition to the classes has been super helpful. I’m actually going to take another class to, I am taking a hand tools class that fine woodworking is putting on in San Diego. So I’m looking forward to that because I actually use a, I use power tools and hand tools together. I kind of replicated the way they made these pieces in the 19 hundreds. So that’s a, so I do a little of both.
Eric: So to circle, talk about hand tools, you had a post, which I just sometimes surf your site and I try and find the random article. So it’s all random. You should have just a random post generator there.
Erik: Whatever’s online, whatever crazy thing is on my mind.
Eric: But you got rid of your pegboards in your shop for specific tool holders. And I’m like, I’m like, no, no, no, no. I want to be able to move it all around again. But
Erik: Yeah, so this one of the more controverts you’ll pose it actually cause there are, there are pegboard adherents. I had a, there’s a friend of mine who visited my shop in its pegboard phase named Fred Frederick Federico Tibone, who’s been on this on, on my podcast. And he’s like a, he’s a artist, super, super talented guy. He teaches the shop classes to, to, to young people actually. And he looked at my pegboard and, and he kinda said, ah, do you like that? Pegboard and because here’s the thing about pegboard is I know there are better forms of pegboard, but I had the stuff from the big box store. And honestly, when you go to take a tool off of it, often the little hanger thing would fall out and they’re just not very sturdy. And some of the hand tools are pretty expensive.
Erik: So I need to make sure they don’t fall off the wall. And I in find woodworking at an article on making specific holders for all your tools. Again, it’s easier to see than to describe, but basically you a take a tool and you draw out the negative space for the tool and you make a hanger a specifically for it or a shelf or with a lip and that kind of thing. And it’s more flexible than you would think because you can always pull the, unscrew the holder off the wall plywood wall and make another holder. If you got another different size tool or something like that or add to it, it’s it’s more flexible than you would think. And it’s, it’s sturdier so stuff doesn’t fall off. You know, again, some of the God, the hand planes are super expensive. I don’t want those to fall off the wall. And then the other thing is it looks nice too, which is again, part of like wanting to be in the space, working it, it needs to be pleasant. So I liked that part of it too.
Eric: And it’s like, it’s a beer conversation piece.
Erik: People, people, their eye goes straight to it. It’s where they’re like, wow, this is super organized. Even though, like right now I’m finishing up a bunch of projects and there’s a bunch of scrap wood laying around and crap all over the place. But yeah, the people’s eye goes straight to it. That, you know, I don’t know. They think you know what you’re doing even when you don’t.
Eric: Yeah. That’s how I live. So, so, so to basically paraphrase all this and wrap up, you, you, you’ve always been kind of handy, but then you started, you took some classes and then you started small. We went bigger and now you’re a fine craftsmen.
Erik: I wouldn’t say
Eric: That. I’m working, I’m working up. I progressively, and I have to say it has paid. It is really paid for itself because when it came time to redo this house for the second time first of all, I couldn’t find people to do work. So I had to do it all my, a lot of it myself. So framing the walls making door openings from scratch replicating the molding, making a window completely from scratch and framing that out putting into new hardwood floors. So while I had to invest in education and also invest in tools, I’m pretty sure they’ve paid for themselves at this point. And I like to think of it as like an old wooden ship would always have a place for the car from dirt to work. So every old house needed, it’s the same thing. Wow. I’d never thought of it that way. But yeah. So I can buy new tables on, just tell my family I’m saving the money. But yes, but it’s actually true. Alright, so roots simple.com or the podcast is roots simple. And if you go there probably within a week, you’ll hear me making a very important announcement on the roots that I have yet to tell my own audience. Exclusive. All right. Thank you for your time, sir. Thank you.